Exploring Reproductive Technology and Management

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Exploring Reproductive Technology and Management

by Lilly Platts      |      

Ensuring that females are bred and productive is a goal for every beef cattle operation, from seedstock to commercial, but meeting reproductive goals is not always simple. Dr. Ky Pohler, Texas A&M University, and Dr. Jordan Thomas, University of Missouri, share their experience and knowledge on the topic.

 

 

 

Keeping up with the latest in reproductive technology and research can be challenging and overwhelming. From geographical location to unique management practices, every operation is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to finding the most effective breeding plan. Utilizing Artificial Insemination (AI), for example, does not guarantee heavier weaning weights alone, but when used as a part of a holistic management plan, the practice can rapidly improve both the genetic and financial potential of a cow herd. Reproductive technologies have the potential to improve genetic progress, increase financial gains, and additionally, help producers identify and solve other issues within the cow herd. While there are too many in-depth protocols and practices to outline in a single article, there are some larger, guiding principles that can help producers navigate these decisions. Two experts in beef cattle reproduction offer their insights. 

Dr. Ky Pohler is an associate professor at Texas A&M University. He is the chair of the Texas A&M Department of Animal Science Pregnancy Development Programming Area of Excellence. His research lab is focused on reproductive efficiency, and decreasing embryonic mortality. 

Dr. Jordan Thomas is a faculty member at the University of Missouri’s Department of Animal Science, with a split appointment between research and Extension. His research focuses on control of the estrous cycle in cattle, timed AI, embryo transfer, and heifer development. In Extension, he discusses reproductive management using a systems-based approach.

How Can the Benefits of Reproductive Practices Be Measured?

A management practice has to offer a tangible, measurable benefit to be worth implementing. Practices like AI, embryo transplant, and estrus synchronization offer a number of potential benefits, ranging from shortened calving seasons to heavier weaning weights. Dr. Pohler breaks the measurable benefits down into two categories. “I think about it financially, and I think about what it does to serve the cow herd moving forward,” he explains. “If you think about those two things separately, the ability to use estrus synchronization and reproductive technology to move the herd in some direction is a lot faster than what you would be able to do without AI and synchronization. Then, we capture the genetic value of the calves.”

 

A high conception rate is every producer’s goal during breeding season, and good reproductive management can help with this and more.

 Pohler clarifies that using AI does not automatically cause benefits like heavier weaning weights. “Some people think that AI calves bring more money, but you have to look at it with a more holistic view. Most of the time, those calves are born earlier, and therefore weigh more — if you don’t take into consideration the genetic merit, those calves should still weigh more.”

Additionally, Pohler points to overall improvements in management that come with a thoughtful reproduction plan. “One of the biggest things, especially in the West, is it makes things easier to manage. You can strategically do things, like decrease bull battery, or position your females
to get half of them bred at the start of the season.”

Pohler adds that synchronization practices can still be beneficial if females don’t conceive by AI, since estrus synchronization improves the percentage of females cycling early in the breeding season. “Even if a female doesn’t conceive by AI, they will still breed up earlier by the herd bull.”

Thomas also encourages a holistic view of these practices. When considering the cost of an AI program, he explains that finding the underlying root cause of a cost is essential when choosing how to allocate resources. “Our tendency is to look for things we can cut. Instead, we should try to cut the underlying cause of that cost, and that is where I try to go with reproductive management. Poor reproductive performance in cow-calf herds leads to producers using long breeding seasons, and having long calving seasons. Those long calving seasons and strung-out cow herds cause a tremendous amount of cost. It causes a tremendous amount of supplementation cost, trying to manage cows that are spread out in their stage of production. It causes lost revenue because we deal with more things like calf scours and higher mortality. It causes higher-than-desirable costs associated with cow depreciation, because we know that later-calving cows also become part of challenged populations of cows that are more difficult to breed back successfully.”

Thomas adds that these issues can overshadow any genetic superiority a calf may have. “There is missed revenue, or opportunity cost, because we’re not producing early-born calves that are older and heavier weaning. Instead, we are producing late-born calves that go on to be the lightest, youngest calves in the group, regardless of their genetic merit.”

“I think about reproductive management largely as a cost control strategy,” Thomas says. “If you put that in the right package you can really make the technology not just pay for itself, but actually become a leverage point to reduce other costs.”

Estrus synchronization can help females remain productive, and improve longevity. A uniform, consistent calf crop is one of the many benefits of utilizing AI.

 

Setting up for Success
Pohler and Thomas both emphasize that setting reasonable expectations is essential when considering the potential benefits of implementing or expanding a reproductive management plan. Pohler shares, “All technology is not one size fits all. Just because your neighbor does it doesn’t mean you should. Having good goals for using the technology is important.”

A common negative experience producers have when using AI is a lower-than-expected conception rate. The natural response may be to blame the AI technician, the synchronization protocol, or the quality of the semen, but this issue may actually expose larger issues within the cow herd. Pohler explains, “Reproductive management is not a silver bullet. We cannot overcome poor nutrition, genetics, or health. Reproductive efficiency helps measure how successful you are in those other areas.”

Thomas echoes this, explaining that identifying these other issues will not only eventually improve the herd’s fertility, but can also improve other areas. For example, the goal of using a synchronization protocol doesn’t have to simply be high AI conception rates. He explains, “Typically when I go work with a commercial producer, they are trying to think about an estrus synchronization program when they are already behind the game a bit. It can be tempting to think it’s not worth doing because of other factors, but I push back on that because we can still use it as a tool to improve things. I may have a set of heifers that are underdeveloped, or a group of cows that were not managed for short calving, or winter supplementation that wasn’t at the level we would like to see so the cows are on the thin side. I may want to make changes for the next time, but synchronization can be helpful in alleviating some of those issues. We start to move those challenged females up when they conceive, and if they don’t conceive by AI, they are still more likely to get bred earlier.”

Choosing a synchronization protocol and plan for AI can be overwhelming, but generally, Thomas and Pohler both suggest targeting smaller goals and then expanding. Pohler explains, “The most important thing with reproduction is to take small bites into it. Maybe AI heifers first, and then use estrus synchronization and natural service for the mature cow herd before AIing everything.”

Thomas adds, “We have major opportunities to improve reproductive performance in cow herds, but often it’s a multi-year process, and it’s a process that maybe involves some of these reproductive management technologies and also involves overall management.”

Using estrus synchronization and AI can shorten the calving season, which helps producers manage calf health.

Resources and the Future
An open female is one of the largest costs to a producer and the industry as a whole, so researchers are continually working to solve issues surrounding beef cattle reproduction. Pohler explains that bull fertility — and fully understanding how each parent contributes to the equation — is a top priority. “The big thing we’re trying to understand is what the bull’s contribution is to fertility, versus the cow’s. In the coming years we’re going to see major improvements in bull fertility, and we’ll have major benefits from that.”

Pohler encourages producers to visit beefrepro.org. This site, hosted by the Beef Reproduction Task Force, offers a number of tools, including an estrus synchronization calendar and an “AI Cowculator,” which can evaluate the economic feasibility of an AI program based on a number of inputs provided by the producer.

Thomas is involved in a variety of research projects, ranging from improving synchronization protocols to evaluating and refining common management practices. He suggests producers explore the University of Missouri’s publication, Whole System Management of Reproduction
in Beef Cattle. This publication, available through the University of Missouri Extension service, covers shortening calving seasons, heifer selection and development, maintaining cow condition, minimizing reproductive stresses, and bull management.

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